Lagos — Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is indeed a living legend. He is 90 years old today. Weeks before his 90th birthday, the world could literally not wait to celebrate him. On June 27, 2008 a very well attended and colourful musical concert was held for him at Hyde Park, London. The concert was beamed live through several cable satellite televisions to the whole world. Not many people have had this type of honour in their life time.
His given name Rolihlahla means "to pull a branch of a tree", or more colloquially, "troublemaker". At seven, he was given the name "Nelson", after the Admiral Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy, by a Methodist teacher who found his native name difficult to pronounce.
The circumstances that led to his being given the name Rolihlahla (troublemaker) are not known but he did trouble the perpetrators of the apartheid regime until the system was dismantled. He was a commited anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress, ANC, and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. Initially committed to non-violent mass struggle, the ANC had to adopt the violent strategy following the Sharpeville Massacre incident. That event coupled with the declaration of a state of emergency along with the banning of the ANC made it clear that the only option left was to resist through acts of sabotage.
Mandela was arrested with other ANC members and were convicted for crimes that included sabotage committed while he spearheaded the struggle against apartheid. He spent 27 years in prison, much of it on Robben Island. In his statement of defence during the trial on April 20, 1964 at Pretoria Supreme Court, Mandela had this to say: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
He believes in majority rule and equality of all races and he spent a better part of his life fighting the apartheid regime that perpetrated race inequality in his country for several decades until victory was won. When freedom was eventually achieved he demonstrated that the struggle was not for his selfish interest.
Following his release from prison on February 11, 1990, by Frederik Willem de Klerk, he became the first post-apartheid elected President of South Africa and his switch to a policy of reconciliation and negotiation helped to lead the transition to multi-racial democracy in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid, he has been widely praised, even by former opponents.
Even though, constitutionally, he could run for two terms in office, at the end of his first term, Mandela voluntarily left office to pave the way for younger leaders to run the affairs of the country. Mandela had always made it known to African leaders who had liberated their countries but had then overstayed their welcome to quit the scene. In a continent noted for bad and corrupt leadership, sit-tight tyrants, inept and visionless leaders, Mandela has emerged as a shining model of what a good African leader should be. He has received more than one hundred awards over four decades, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
He has frequently credited Mahatma Gandhi for being a major source of inspiration in his life, both for the philosophy of non-violence and for facing adversity with dignity. Indeed, Mandela took part in the 29 January - 30 January 2007 conference in New Delhi which marked the 100th anniversary of Gandhi's introduction of satyagraha in South Africa. Unfortunately, not many African leaders are prepared to borrow a leaf from his leadership style.
Born in the small village of Mvezo in the district of Umtata, the Transkei capital, Mandela belongs to a cadet branch of the Thembu dynasty which (nominally) reigns in the Transkeian Territories of the Union of South Africa's Cape Province. He is a celebrated elder statesman who continues to voice his opinion on topical issues. While African leaders are speaking tongue-in-cheek on the Zimbabwe crisis, Mandela in his characteristic manner took time out during his speech at one of the dinners organised during his week-long birthday celebration in London, which had UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, former US President, Bill Clinton, Ms Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Robert de Niro and Forest Whitaker in attendance, to comment on the Zimbabwe crisis. He described it as a "tragic failure of leadership." He had in 2007 called on the Zimbabwean leader to quit office in honour "sooner than later", with "a modicum of dignity".
Mandela is bold, courageous and daring. It is a combination of these attributes that saw him conquer the evil of apartheid in South Africa. He is sometimes referred to as Madiba in South Africa, an honorary title adopted by elders of his clan. The title has become synonymous with him.
Mandela had the "privilege" of reading his obituary while alive in 2003. In July 2001 he was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. He was treated with a seven-week course of radiation. In 2003 Mandela's death was erroneously announced by the Cable News Network, CNN, when his pre-written obituary was inadvertently published on its website. In 2007, while he was on holiday in Mozambique, email and SMS messages were circulated claiming that the South African government was covering up Mandela's death and that white South Africans would be massacred after his funeral. Again, it turned out to be falsehood.
At 90, Mandela now appears in public less often and since his retirement, one of his primary commitments has been to the fight against AIDS. In 2003, he lent his support to the 46664 AIDS fund raising campaign, named after his prison number. In July 2004, he flew to Bangkok to speak at the XV International AIDS Conference. His son, Makgatho Mandela, died of AIDS-related disease on January 6, 2005.
Although he now walks slowly with the support of a stick and aids, he still has much life in him. While calling on African leaders to learn a lesson or two from this worthy son of Africa, we wish Madiba many.